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The British and their Political Parties: How good is the electoral menu?

By Cees van der Eijk and Stuart Fox

In a previous post we discussed how approximately half of British voters hold multiple party preferences. For these voters, the electoral attractiveness of their second-best party is the same or almost the same as for their best party, which makes it easy for them to switch their vote intention during the campaign.

At first sight this may look like people are spoilt for choice – but there is a caveat. Electoral preferences were measured, for each party separately, on a scale from 0 to 10. A tie at the top could mean quite different things, depending on the strength of preferences that are tied. Indeed, those who rate two parties each at 10 on this scale are well served by the party system, as they have two options to choose from on polling day, each of which they find excellent. But if the two best parties are tied at 7, it suggests that neither of them are particularly electorally attractive.

We can use this information on voters’ multiple preferences to see how good the electoral menu is from which voters will choose on Thursday. We can do this simply by looking at the highest preference score given to the various parties; if the highest score is 10, then the voter in questions finds at least one party they consider excellent on the menu. If the highest score is 8, then the best party on the menu is good, but with room for improvement. If that highest score is 5, the party might still be more attractive than the other parties on offer, but still leaves a great deal to be desired; voters whose highest party preference is 5 finds themselves confronted by a pretty unappealing menu.

The table below shows the highest preference scores for our BES respondents. Clearly, identifying voters’ highest preference depends on which parties we consider. If we look first at just the Labour and Tory parties – one of which will undoubtedly form the bulk of the next government – we find that only 37% of voters considers either party to be excellent (i.e. a score of 10 out of 10). This increases to 45% if we count scores of 9 or above, and 57% if we count scores of 8 or above. Less than two thirds of the British electorate, therefore, considers the choice from the two major parties to be particularly appealing.

The second column in the table adds in the other large UK-wide parties: the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens. While still less than half of the electorate considers any of the big UK-wide parties to be excellent (only 46% award any of them a 10 out of 10), almost three-quarters give at least one of these parties a score of 8 or higher. If we add in the two nationalist parties – the SNP and Plaid Cymru – we see a marginal improvement; half of the electorate now finds at least one party to be excellent, and just over three quarters give at least one party a score of 8 or higher. In other words, about three quarters of the electorate considers themselves to be well-served by Britain’s menu of political parties.

Highest electoral preference for any party of different electoral menus

Highest preference (scale 0- 10) preferences for the following parties
Conservatives, Labour Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP, Green Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP, Green, SNP, PC
10               37%                 46%             49%
9 or 10              45%                 59%            62%
8 – 10             57%                 73%            76%


How well we are served by the electoral menu on offer is, as always, a matter of perspective. On the one hand, we could say ‘three out of four ain’t bad’; but on the other, can we be content with a system in which a quarter of voters (even more once we consider that not all of these parties feature on the ballot in all constituencies) don’t find any party particularly attractive?

We can try to gauge how well Britain’s electoral menu performed by comparing it with that of other countries. The figure below compares Britain with other EU member-states based on data from the 2014 European elections. From this perspective, it is clear that in most other EU countries voters are much more satisfied with the parties on offer than in Britain; Britain is ranked 22nd out of 28 member states.


Proportion of citizens who give at least one party an electoral preference score of 8 or higher – all EU countries (source: European Election Study 2014)

Whether or not citizens are satisfied with their electoral menu matters because it is strongly related to whether or not they bother to vote at all. If voters are not enthused, even by the party they find most appealing, they are unlikely to vote. The tipping point on our 0-10 scales at which the line between being sufficiently enthused to vote and being insufficiently enthused is typically between 7 and 8. Voters with a highest preference of 8 or higher are far more likely to vote than those with lower figure.

While all focus will be on which party gets the most votes and seats on Thursday, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that Britain’s electoral menu is so unappealing for a quarter of voters. These people are so disenchanted with what’s on offer that they are unlikely to bother voting at all.

Cees van der Eijk is a Professor of comparative politics, research methods and electoral studies at the Methods and Data Institute at the University of Nottingham. Stuart Fox is a PHD candidate who research focuses on political participation, alienation and apathy of young people in Western democracies.

Published inBritish PoliticsGeneral Election 2015Politics

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